The modern academic and journalistic refrain calls out the same arguments– Twitter, Facebook, and Google are radicalizing our political dialog, supplanting our meaningful social connections, and driving us towards predictable consumerist self-medication. The only solution is more oversight, increased regulation, and tighter control of our communication technologies. This analysis has missed the forest for the trees.
The Lever Problem
Most people are familiar with Harvard's late B.F. Skinner– one of the pioneers of modern behaviorism– because of his Skinner Box experiments. This technique houses small animals in a box with a lever, with rewards appearing on different schedules (sometimes reinforcing the lever pushes, and sometimes not) to see how rewards reinforce behaviors. Famously, intermittent variable rewards cause animals to press the lever most frequently. These reward structures are what we find in slot machines and gambling, as well as the design of social media websites.
A famous critique of this result came with the 1978 'Rat Park' experiment. The researchers behind this test suggested that previous experiments on highly addictive rewards (in which pigeons and rats would voluntarily drink morphine-laced water until they died) missed a crucial component – these animals were isolated and caged in a way that would promote drug addiction. The Rat Park researchers believed that Skinner's drug addiction was not because drugs had been introduced to the animal environment, it was because normal social contexts had been removed. They showed that rats presented with the same morphine rewards, but in a normal context (a larger, shared cage with other rats where they could reproduce), accessed the morphine rewards significantly less.
The specific results of the Rat Park studies are quite controversial despite their fame – the original study has failed to replicate consistently and was passed over by more prestigious journals because of serious methodological errors. It's unlikely that the damning results they report are actually accurate. However, a recent paper in the Journal for Reproducibility in Neuroscience argues that though the specific findings are not true, conceptually it has withstood the test of time.
For example, Lee Robin's 1974 study of Vietnam War veterans showed that, based on random drug tests, 10% abused narcotics before the war and 11% after the war, while that number skyrocketed to 43% while deployed (34% of those being heroin users). The incredible low rates of heroin recidivism after use in Vietnam is truly remarkable (only ~1% of veterans re-addiction upon return). A 2017 follow-up study suggested that this result has much more to do with social and psychological factors (citing disapproval from family, legal troubles, fear for health, and fear of addiction) instead of access (most veterans reported that it was easy to obtain heroin in their area, and 10% tried heroin upon return even though only 1% continued). If we just consider those that had easy enough access to heroin and high enough motivation to use it again, a 1-in-10 re-addiction rate for these high risk, re-exposed users is astounding. Heroin is a potent drug.
Desperate People Push Levers
If you give desperate people a lever, they will push it. It's like presenting a person in serious pain with a button to control their morphine. When morphine addiction inevitably starts to skyrocket, taking the morphine away doesn't solve the underlying problem– and people suffering from pain will be on the market for the closest morphine-replacement they can find.
The correct, more difficult way to solve the 'lever-pushing' problem is to address the underlying desperation. Removing all Facebook-like levers is not realistic, nor does it address the desire for a Facebook lever. There will (and should) be democratic, social technology in the marketplace.
Regulation seeks to remove or shape levers without considering the underlying socio-psychological landscape of the individual. It covers the symptom, but doesn't fix the problem. It obscures the true causes. Regulation is an analgesic.
Addiction is Real
Addiction is complex. There are many things that factor into our susceptibility to a given lever-reward– the genetic predisposition of the person, their underlying psychological needs, the broader environment, the barriers of access to a given lever, and whether the lever exists as an option at all.
In the case of social media, it is very hard to regulate properly without threatening either a useful underlying technology, or an embodiment of that technology that is good and useful in other contexts. That's not to say we don't have an interface problem with social media– right now, we're forced to carry it with us everywhere we go to engage with the world, and we should have a lot more agency over how we interface with our technology. However, the effort we spend shaping levers and tweaking our barriers to access them ignores a more severe and important underlying problem.
Those with intrinsically meaningful lives outside of technology are rarely seduced by it. In my experience at the MIT Media Lab (and famously in the example of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates), those that understand the influences of technology minimize its role in their lives, successfully. I've been amazed at how many of my friends at the one of the most technologically-focused labs in the world live minimalist, anti-tech lifestyles at home.
But the problems of social media– whether its a superficial stand-in for real social connection or it's a political machine that radicalizes deeply-held, identity-driven ideologies– are symptoms much more than causes.
Our sense of intimacy, community, and trust has largely dissolved in post-industrial, post-WWII society– a trend which predates the internet. Our desire for structured meaning, belief, and belonging– previously the domain of religion and war and local community– have been annexed by sound-byte politick.
These deep and real human needs will continue to be met somehow. Unless we look towards individual psychology and address them at their core, we'll find ourselves regulating lever and lever away in a game of whack-a-mole. In the process, we risk damaging the real value that these services provide underneath their perversions.
The pathology of the modern condition is to feel isolated, lonely and tuned-in; comfortable, satiated, and redundant; nihilistic, disillusioned, and deeply ideological.... with access to social media. Only one of those is the real problem. We need to stop focusing so much on the lever, and take a much closer look at the life of a rat in its cage.